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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ray's Revolutionary War connection

Monday, September 27, 2010

For many years, through most of the 20th Century, Ray Search was a well-known figure in McCook, as manager of the Fox and Temple Theaters. A native Nebraskan, he was a great ambassador for the state. He was one of the city's leading storytellers. But there was another side to this popular McCookite, one that he did not often talk about.

Ray wanted very much to serve his country by being a flyer in the U.S. Air Force. But this was not to be. During World War I, Ray was too young to serve. When he tried to enlist during World War II he already had a wife and two daughters, and he was deemed too old to fly for the Air Force. He was forced to serve his country by serving in numerous war-related causes on the home front. He always thought that he should have been a soldier, like his great-great-great-grandfather, Gen. William Shepard, of Westfield, Massachusetts, a crony of Gen. Washington during the American Revolutionary War.

William Lyman Shepard was born in 1737 in Westfield, the son of a farmer. When the colonists joined to fight with the British during the French and Indian Wars, William was just 17, but he was eager to join the Massachusetts Militia, and for the next six year he fought alongside the British. He was well-built, over six feet tall, and turned out to be an excellent soldier. He was promoted several times and by the time the war ended, with the invasion of Canada and the capture of Quebec, William had attained the rank of lieutenant in the Massachusetts Militia.

After the French and Indian Wars Shepard embraced the Whig (or Patriot) cause. He was a member of the Committee of Correspondence, and when the war with England threatened, his military background made him a natural choice to command the militia in his home community. During the Revolutionary War Shepard served as a colonel of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. His unit turned out to be one of Washington's key regiments. They saw action in the battles of New York, Princeton, Trenton, Saratoga, Monmouth and Rhode Island.

Shepard was with Washington during the winter of 1777-78, at Valley Forge, a particularly difficult time for the Continental Army. Conditions at Valley Forge were deplorable. The winter was cold, wet and damp. Sanitary conditions were bad, giving rise to disease. 2,000 men, out of the 12,000 that came to Valley Forge, died that winter, of typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia. However, coupled with the bad, there was some good that came out of that cruel winter. Under the strict discipline of Baron Frederick von Steuben, a skilled Prussian drillmaster, by spring the largely untrained gaggle of patriots became a well-trained Army, ready to do battle with the British. Though the war would go on for nearly six more years, Valley Forge marked the turning point of the Revolutionary War for the Continental Army.

The 4th Mass., under the command of Maj. Gen. Shepard was at West Point when the war ended, one of the last units of the Continental Army to be deactivated, in 1783.

(Note: Benedict Arnold was in command of the fortress of West Point when he turned traitor and attempted to sell the post to the British, the act for which Benedict Arnold has gained lasting notoriety. Arnold's plan failed when his British contact, John Andre, was captured with papers proving Arnold's treachery. Andre was hanged; Arnold escaped to the British lines, and spent the rest of the war fighting for the British.)

At the Battle of Long Island, Gen. Shepard was wounded in the neck by a bullet and carried, unconscious, from the field of battle. As the surgeons were probing his wound to remove the bullet Shepard regained consciousness. "Bring me a canteen," he said to the doctors. Then, finding that he could drink and that nothing vital had been hit, he said to the surgeon, "It's all right, doctor. Stick on a plaster and tie on my cravat. I'm going out again!"

In spite of the objections of the surgeon, and to the amazement of the his aides, Shepard did return to the battle. This was just one of the 22 battles that he participated in during the Revolutionary War. Over and over he proved his bravery, his common sense and his high character and leadership ability, and showed that he did, indeed, deserve his promotion to General in the Continental Army.

After the Revolutionary War ended, Shepard was content to return to a simple life of a farmer on his small estate, but the people of his district admired him, and respected his judgment enough that he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, then to the State Senate, and finally to three terms in the U.S. Congress.

He was appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to be the governor's representative in dealing with the Penobscot Indians, and later was chosen by President John Adams to deal with the Six Indian Nations. Between times, he served many of the City of Westfield Town offices, and was a deacon in his church for 24 years.

In 1786, a group of farmers, most of whom were Continental Army veterans under the leadership of Daniel Shays, protested what they considered excessive taxes after the war had ended. The movement gained strength and threatened to get out of hand when the protesters made an attack on the armory at Springfield, Mass. General Wm. Shepard had been chosen to defend that arsenal. He attempted to reason with Shays' farmers, who were armed with mostly sticks and clubs, but to no avail. When it was apparent that an attack was imminent, Shepard ordered that canon shot be fired over the heads of the attackers. It didn't stop them, and when more canon shots were fired, three of the protesters lay dead, and the attack ceased.

Shepard was initially denounced by the townspeople of Westfield, who felt that his measures had been drastic. Gradually, that animosity toward Shepard softened, and it was generally agreed that his stance against the protesters had been justified.

Shepard was held in great regard by the people of Westfield to the end of his life, at the age of 80, in 1819. At his funeral a Mr. Bates spoke of the General, "The man ... was in the service of his country for more than 30 years -- A friend of Layfayette ... was ... was esteemed by Washington, and was his companion in all the battles of the War ... no taint of meanness or dishonesty ever attached itself to him."

In 1919, a statue of Wm. Shepard, Westfield's Revolutionary War Hero, was erected in the city square, as part of the celebration of Westfield's 250th Anniversary of its founding. The money to build the statue was donated from the estate of Henry Fuller, one of the town's leading attorneys.

In 1969, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the erection of Gen. Shepard's statue, the Westfield City Fathers invited descendants of Gen. Shepard to return to Westfield and take part in the celebration. Ray Search and his wife, Helen, of McCook, attended that ceremony, as honored guests, along with Ray's brother, Harold and his wife Jeane, of New York. The two couples participated in the Flag Day ceremony at the old Mechanics Cemetery, the final resting place of Gen. Shepard, where a new flagpole was dedicated, honoring the general. There was an additional ceremony, honoring Gen. Shepard at the city square, where the couples added a wreath at the base of the 5-foot granite base, holding the 15-foot bronze statue of the general.

Ray counted that experience as one of the highlights of his life.


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By